The simple truth about defunding the police that politicians refuse to see
Everybody loves to hate the "defund the police" movement. The right has done its best to demonize anyone who questions the police. But they're not alone. Democratic President Joe Biden has explicitly denounced the idea of reducing the number of police on the streets. Even progressive Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has distanced himself, calling for "major police reform across the country," but rejecting the idea of ending policing and incarceration.
Yet the basic logic of defunding the police has obvious common sense appeal. It's better to invest in methods that prevent crime before it happens than it is to punish people after someone has already been victimized. Providing people with the resources to strengthen their communities is more cost-effective, and less violent, than impoverishing them before spending a ton of money to jail them.
One excellent potential approach to defunding the police is a centerpiece of the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure legislation. Lead abatement, which has strong support even among Republicans, can reduce crime much more effectively than more money for cops. It's a policy which illustrates why defunding the police should have support on both sides. The conversation around it, though, reiterates the reluctance to reject the logic of policing.
Everyone agrees lead is a serious environmental health problem. Currently, researchers estimate there are more than 1.2 million children in the US with elevated lead levels, though that number may be rising since testing has declined over the last decade. Children exposed to even low levels of lead (2 μg/dL) have measurable decreases in intelligence and reading ability. When children have levels of 5 μg/dL and above, they are considered to have lead poisoning, and often experience attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.
Given the harm lead can cause, the government should do more to keep children from being poisoned. The Biden administration is taking some steps in that direction. The just-signed bipartisan infrastructure law allocates $15 billion to replace lead pipes. The Build Back Better reconciliation bill currently being considered has an additional $10 billion. Unfortunately, the industry says that replacing all lead pipes in the country will cost $60 billion. Nor do Biden's proposal address the most common source of lead poisoning: lead paint chips.
Biden has enthusiastically touted his lead abatement measures. But in some ways he's undersold them. He hasn't, for example, explained that reducing lead exposure is a way to reduce crime.
Lead doesn't only damage intelligence. It also reduces the capacity for self-control. Exposure can make people more likely to react in violent or antisocial ways. Lead may therefore be linked to one of the most perplexing policy questions in our lifetime — the steady and dramatic decline in crime from the 1990s through the 2010s.
Researchers have pointed out that the lead content of gasoline in the US rose from the 1940s to 1970. It then dropped quickly to almost nothing by the 1990s. Violent crime followed the same trend, only 20 years later. Many analysts have concluded that children of a generation exposed to lead grew up to commit more crimes while those from a generation with less lead exposure committed less.
Amherst economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, for example, found that "the reduction in lead exposure in the 1970s is responsible for a 56 percent drop in violent crime in the 1990s and will likely produce further declines in the future." She added that "lead could be one of the most important factors influencing violent crime in the United States."
Removing lead protects children and can stop crime. Given that, you'd think the argument for shifting funds from policing to lead abatement would be pretty straightforward. Why not take $100 billion from the $350 billion Biden set aside for more policing, and use that money to replace every lead pipe in the country? With those funds, you could even get a major start on eliminating lead paint nationwide.
We aren't absolutely sure more lead abatement will result in dramatic drops in crime now that lead has mostly been removed from gasoline. But we don't know that more police will reduce crime either. If we're going to spend money on uncertain solutions, it makes more sense to invest in the one that we know will make children healthier, rather than in the one that has demonstrable and massive racist outcomes.
So the Democrats could make the case for lead abatement as a crime control measure. Biden could be out there in a press conference with Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Joe Manchin saying, "We are going to remove all lead pipes in the nation. And not only will that make your children healthier. It will help us reduce crime and violence for decades, protecting your grandchildren too."
The reality is that law and order rhetoric has such a stranglehold on discussion of public safety that politicians simply can't imagine any response to crime that does not involve police and prisons. This is the case even when those politicians — from both parties! — are actually touting and voting for demonstrably anti-carceral policies.
Defund the police is a radical demand. But it's not radical because it's advocating for controversial policies or bizarre utopian solutions. It's radical because it challenges us to think of security as a matter best addressed through health and care rather than stop and frisk.